Last Nba column of 2016. We are past the first third of the season and there is now an obvious trend that should be considered. Last spring, most experts thought that last June’s draft was not top heavy, but teams could find role-players and possible starters as far as the second round. This projections also foresaw an underwhelming, or at least unspectacular, race for the Rookie of the Year, with struggling players and flawed stars. Unsurprisingly, things went as expected.
Ben Simmons, first pick in the draft, is out with an injury and might miss the whole season. Rumors had him coming back early in 2017, but it seems unlikely, and understandably so. Brandon Ingram is with the Lakers, a team that has the young talent to bring him along slowly and wait for him to blossom. And that’s a blessing for the ex Duke, since his body is not ready to take on starting wings in the Nba. Coach Luke Walton chose to focus his development on defense and playmaking rather than giving him a green light to shoot. The goal is to make him an all-around player. It is the kind of development that does not show on the stat sheet or in the highlights, but it is what he needs to fulfill his potential. It will also allow him to grow into his body and put on some muscles, to prepare himself for a future as a starter.
Ingram and Simmons were the two two players in conversation for the #1 pick, and the rest was a few tiers below. Jaylen Brown is developing, going through highs and lows and looking as raw as ever. Kris Dunn, for all the hype surrounding him, was mediocre for stretches and was outplayed by Tyus Jones when he was not. Bender and Chriss are 19. Hield is still trying to figure it out. Maker, Poeltl, Prince, Valentine and Papagiannis had only a few chances to play and whatever good they showed (Poeltl, mostly) did not last. Out of 14 lottery picks, only Jamal Murray, Domantas Sabonis and Ingram looked their part, and when it comes to Ingram, both team results (18 losses in the last 23 games) and personal statistics have to be ignored.
Considering how things have been going for this draft class, it seems obvious that every rookie ranking this season had an unusual look. Joel Embiid is the best first-year player, but he was picked in 2014 and spent two year rehabilitating from injuries. After a difficult start, Dario Saric was the second best player so far, another 2014 draftee who only played in Europe. Third best was Malcolm Brogdon, 36th pick for the Milwaukee Bucks, who joined the Nba after 4 years with the Virginia Cavaliers. Following next, Jamal Murray, who had a rough start as well but then found his shot, and Ingram. After that, everything gets muddy.
Of course, each of these 14 players found themselves in a particular and specific situation. It is impossible to compare their Nba paths for now. Some had their chance to play and took advantage of it, others did not because of their teams or their own faults. Two examples are quite significant, Domantas Sabonis and Denzel Valentine. The Lithuanian is the starting power forward for a team that will make the playoffs, barring injuries. But the player that is now starting for the Thunder has nothing to do with the one playing at Gonzaga. OKC needs to space the floor, Sabonis has a good shooting touch, an irrelevant aspect of his game in coach Mark Few’s system and in the Ncaa. But now, Sabonis is averaging 6.4 points and shoots 41.4% from behind the arc on 2.4 attempts per game. On the other hand, he grabs only 3.6 rebounds per game and earned only 7 free throws total in 673 minutes of playing time. He became a perimeter player to allow Russell Westbrook to do his things, and the player scaring the Ncaa with his post moves is gone.
Denzel Valentine was an all around player at Michigan State, a leader on the court and talented enough to do it all. His three-point shooting was lethal and his primary weapon to create space for himself and his teammate, since he lacks an explosive first step to get by defenders. In his last college year he averaged 19.2 points while shooting 44.4% from three, 7.5 rebounds and 7.8 assists. Since he joined the Chicago Bulls, he played 11 minutes per game because of the logjam at the guard spot and did nothing to earn a larger role (26.8% from three).
What to make of this weird picture? Embiid is a generational talent and would probably be the best player anyway. As for the rest, the one-and-dones are struggling. Brown saw his playing time diminish of late, Ingram will be solid in the future but his coach is trying to hide his weaknesses more than showcasing his talent, Chriss is going to dunk on someone’s head every other night, but will mess up on most of his possessions. To get another one-and-done who’s having a good year beside Murray, you have to get to Deyonta Davis (31st pick for the Memphis Grizzlies) who has been playing 8 minutes per game.
And what about the veterans? Brogdon worked on his outside shot and found the ideal situation, with an All-Star guard injured and Antetokoumpo being the team’s playmaker. Buddy Hield is part of the New Orleans Pelicans tragedy tour, although the team is now resembling a functional basketball unit since their starting point-guard is back in the lineup. The same could be said for Kris Dunn. His defense-first approach seemed tailor-made for coach Tom Thibodeau and most thought he was going to start for his team very soon. Truth is, right now, Rubio is a much better player than Dunn on both sides of the floor. Sabonis had to become a completely different player. Jakob Poeltl had a promising start and then faded into irrelevancy. Pascal Siakam is a starter, but rumors have the Raptors looking for an upgrade at his position every week. Brice Johnson has been playing more D-League than Nba.
Rookies have been disappointing so far, when compared to other draft classes of the past. And the winds of change on a few rules have been blowing for some time: there have been plenty of talks about two mandatory college years before declaring for the draft, effectively ending the one-and-done rule. The Ncaa allowed player to explore their draft chances and then go back to their college teams. It looks like both the Ncaa and Nba are making an effort to keep the players from declaring for the draft too early.
On the other side of the spectrum, Ben Simmons and his documentary, One&Done, tell a different story. The matter cannot be dismissed in just a few words. There are evidence through the years that too many kids threw away their talents and missed on both an education and a basketball career because they declared too soon for the draft. And it is also hard for a teenager to make the right choices with Nba money, while the new CBA will raise the salaries for rookies, increasing that danger. But there are a few cases, and Simmons might be one of them, where the talent is worth the Nba and might be acceptable to get out of college (or skip it altogether) and become a professional athlete. It is not just about basketball, it is about the young lives that might be ruined. For now, we can watch James Young‘s meaningless career with the Celtics fade into obscurity, since he was never part of the rotation and blew every single chance that was given him. He will be a free agent next summer, after three years warming the bench and playing in D-League. And the question will hang in the air: should he have stayed at Kentucky?